The evil of clerical sex abuse “shocked the Church to the core”, Cardinal Vincent Nichols told the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) today, as the Catholic community “struggled to cope with the presence of evil embodied in its members”.
Speaking at the outset of a day of intense scrutiny of the Church’s response to abuse allegations, part of the IICSA’s public hearings into abuse in the Catholic Church, Cardinal Nichols said that the Church still failed to understand safeguarding “in an utterly positive way”, but was getting better, with the help of inquiries such as IICSA.
“I would affirm absolutely that the culture within the Catholic Church today is radically different than it was in 2001, or even in 2007. But I do think there's much, much more we have to achieve,” he said.
In a heartfelt admission that came towards the end of a day of intense questioning over his own handling of abuse Cardinal Nichols admitted that he had failed to sustain one victim who had approached him for help. A711, details of whose case made up the bulk of the afternoon’s interrogation, was abused for many years as a teenager by a priest in the Servite Order, and raped aged 24.
She told IICSA last week that Westminster safeguarding officials failed to support and thus “retraumatised” her, adding that her emails - including to Cardinal Nichols - were often ignored. A subject access request read out to the inquiry revealed that she had been described as “needy”, “manipulative” and “passive-aggressive” in internal correspondence, correspondence that coincided with the Church’s announcement that it was to launch an independent review into safeguarding practices.
Asked by Counsel to the Inquiry Brian Altman QC if this revealed a disconnect between the public face of the Church and what was going on in private, Cardinal Nichols said:
“Yes, that's true. I'm afraid there are not many areas of my life in which there is total integrity. I say - no, I will not go on. We are full of contradictions. I say I am a man of prayer, but my practice of prayer always leaves something to be desired. Yes, I failed. I failed in this. I failed to sustain this person in a difficult period in their life.”
Pushed on whether the safeguarding officials’ treatment of A711 was “unforgivable”, the Cardinal said it was unacceptable, but noted: "Forgiveness is a different concept, if you don't mind me saying so.”
Earlier in the day the Cardinal addressed the decision by the Holy See not to provide a witness statement to IICSA, and not to provide certain information requested by the inquiry, on the grounds that its internal proceedings are not the proper object for a British inquiry.
“Do you think that the inquiry being told that … is rather unfortunate, because it lends itself to the suggestion, rightly or wrongly, that the Holy See is closing shop?” Mr Altman asked.
“I think it's a statement of diplomatic law. The optics are difficult to understand from this perspective and for a man in the street,” Cardinal Nichols said.
He also said that he was disappointed that an instance when the Holy See provided information that led to the arrest of Laurence Soper, former Abbot of Ealing Abbey in west London, for child sexual abuse, had been relegated to a footnote in a previous report.
Issues around apologies to victims, insurance liability and the use of charitable funds also emerged over the course of the hearing.
Cardinal Nichols said apologies to victims were considered on a case by case basis, and that there were “no easy answers”. The Inquiry also touched on the tensions that could arise with insurance companies. While he acknowledged that it is the case in principle that an apology cannot be made without the approval of the Church’s insurers, the Cardinal said that he had not personally encountered a case where there was a disagreement.
“Could you ever conceive that you would be prepared to see the Westminster Diocese lose its indemnity in favour of providing an apology to an alleged victim of child sexual abuse, so that, if that person succeeded in a claim or there was a settlement, the funds would have to come out of noninsured funds?” Mr Altman asked.
“I would have to discuss that with those who were my advisors, but my argument would be to do so,” the Cardinal said.
The Cardinal also faced criticism for the delay in the establishment of an independent review into safeguarding that was first announced in October 2018. Cardinal Nichols said the review was the work of the National Safeguarding Commission and he had not been involved.
He also revealed that the Bishop of Leeds, Marcus Stock, is developing a code of conduct for clergy in relation to abuse allegations, and said that he expected that it would be considered by the Bishops’ Conference at their plenary meeting next Spring.
The Cardinal will continue to give evidence to the inquiry tomorrow afternoon.